An Open Window

(Jake was built like a boy—his long body thin but untrained—and Jake had the hair of a boy—light brown and full, an easy wave to the side. His cheeks showed gracefully the scars of adolescence and his smile was broad and warm, and there were no lines around his eyes. Jake was thirty-two and could pass for twenty, and it was his youthfulness he believed was holding him back. Jake yearned for gray, for wrinkles, for age in some manner to manifest—even just a pot belly would help or black bags under the eyes or jowls or baldness. Then he might get somewhere! Then he might get some respect! Eight years he had been with the hospital, in administration—eight years: perhaps a tenth of his life—and he was still at the bottom.
     Wretched youthfulness! What other explanation for his stagnation? There was none. Jake was motivated and kind and smart. And it was not that no one was advancing. For sure, he had watched with concealed pain and feigned glee as peers moved up. It had been with misery that he noted the mark on each of them: that one a permanent furrow with receding hairline, there a burgeoning buxom with newly onset diabetes…. Jake too was ready to give something to the hospital, ready to sacrifice some vitality. Yet youth—life—clung cruelly.)

The corridor was dark and underground, a foot-tunnel for staff connecting the buildings. The thirty-two-year-old Jake felt comfortable running here, because there were no patients and it mattered not that he looked unprofessional. As he ran along his tie flapped over his shoulder and his hospital identification card swung loosely on the nylon lanyard. Jake was thinking what he often thought, of how he wished he was a doctor. Badly he wished it. Then no petty hierarchy could hold him back. Then he would actually be helping people. Now, instead of running to a meeting, he would be running to save a patient. But the dream of being a doctor was hopeless. Jake had a huge number of children—three (to think he had once wanted six!)—and Jake had already spent six years at college. No, sadly Jake’s course was set and well underway. Now, if only the lines would draw quickly down his cheeks. If only his hair would go gray or down the drain. Then he might get a raise.
     At the far end of the corridor Jake came to an elevator and double-tapped the “up” button. He shook impatiently, slapping his thighs like they were drums.  Today he had meetings scheduled back-to-back-to-back-to-back, four straight hours of them, with no breaks between. It was as if someone wanted him to run late.
     He was still waiting for the elevator. Again and again he pushed the button. He ripped his phone out of his shirt-pocket and fumbled it. It exploded in three pieces on the floor. The elevator arrived and the doors opened. He knelt and hurriedly gathered the pieces. The doors started to close. He slipped inside. Bracing the pieces of the phone to his chest, he kneed the button for the fourth floor, but missed it. Number three illuminated; he didn’t notice. He played the game with the battery, made it fit, and then slammed on the back of the phone. Now Jake was really sweating. He powered up the phone: he was not wearing a watch and he wanted to check the time. But why check it? He knew he was late. And what was the meeting even about? All he had was a location.
     The elevator stopped and the doors opened. He rushed off, looked left, right, and hurried down the hall. He was looking for conference room 408. The first door he passed said 313, and he realized the error. O, he didn’t have time for this! Even the elevator was against him! Back at the elevator, he pushed the “up” button. The doors opened. On board was an elderly woman in a wheelchair. She looked painfully at him. He deliberately pushed the button for the fourth floor.
     Jake was too good for this madness. He had a Master’s Degree in Hospital Administration, from a good school. He knew a lot about running a hospital. He knew how to implement a program and perform a cost analysis. He could tell you a thing or two about networks and patient needs. But no one listened to him. It seemed his coworkers did not want to make the hospital any better. Six months Jake had spent preparing his last presentation, and what had come of it? Nothing. Now meeting after meeting haunted him.
     The doors opened on flour four and Jake checked his lunge, for a couple of drug-reps—by the look of them, by their big fake smiles and gleaming foreheads and shiny shoes—were in just as much of a rush to get on as he was to get off. They yielded to Jake, as they yielded to everyone in the hospital, with their stressed-out, sweaty smiles. Jake thanked them and hurried to the conference room.
     The rest of the team was waiting for him and turned to him when he burst in through the door. It was a combination of looks he received: judgmental frowns and satisfied grins. The middle-aged woman to present said arrogantly, “Now that we are all here.…” And then something turned off in Jake. He could not hear her voice, nor could he see her. There was a window open and he took a seat across from it so he could look out the window. It was windy outside and the sun was shining. It had been cloudy on the drive in early that morning. Jake had come in early to work on some emails regarding the possible preparation of a presentation about the implementation of a program. But why dwell on that? It was sunny and wind was blowing and a tree reached up past the window and spread its branches across it. And the wind was taking the white leaves and spinning them so that it looked like flurries of snow. Jake remembered when he had seen something like this before….

I pulled up to the entrance to the school and noticed something in the air. It looked like snow. But it was May and warm and it was not snow but the white flowerings of some cherry trees twirling on the wind. I rolled down the window and felt the spring wind and smelled the leaves. I reached out and grabbed a fistful. My girls came out with their teacher Mr. Poulton. Mr. Poulton must have seen the emotion on my face and my fistful of little white blooms, because he smiled and shook his head and it seemed he was made happier by my happiness. “How beautiful!” I shouted, and I could have cried….

Sitting there in the meeting facing the open window with the shedding tree: it was the high-point of his day. Jake could see past the tree all the way to the building across the street, and looking up Jake could see the yellow and blue sky. And it was hard on the eyes to stare at the sky. The air came cool and fresh into the conference room, and Jake held it in his lungs.
     “Will someone close that window?” said the woman presenting. “Is anyone else chilly?”
     Jake could hear her again and see her. He said, “I kind of like it.”
     “Well, Jake, I’m cold. Your young blood can handle it. I’m chilly. Do you mind?”
     Yes he minded! It was the high-point of his week! Couldn’t she bear it? No, of course she couldn’t. “I’ll close it,” said Jake.

‘“I’ll close it,’ you said with your stupid self-deprecating smile, and you closed it gently and returned to your seat happily and your act was believable, but on the inside you felt raped of an innocence." Now was a few days later. Jake was talking to himself. “You were like a child that doesn’t know the names of things. You knew it felt good and was pleasing. You knew you wanted to be outside with the good feeling all round you, to look up, down, forward, back, and have that pleasant feeling go right into you. You were a child, an infant, staring at the outside world.” Jake whispered aloud to himself, “Why build buildings and work in them?” He was crossing the tunnel—he spent a lot of time here, underground—on target for another meeting. “But tomorrow is Saturday,” he said, “and you can spend the whole day outside with the kids. And you can show them and tell them about what really matters.” Jake sighed, fatigued, sick of hurrying. “How absurd,” he thought out loud, then silently, “But it’s how I make a living—I make a living—that has to count for something. I’m just done pretending. I mean, I’ll keep acting, but there’ll be no more lying to myself. You’re thirty-two years old. It’s time you have some self respect.”

Mount Si

Where my foot needed to go was snow-covered and there was no way to tell if it would hold. But that was where my foot had to go. “I think I see it,” I said.
     He was above on a perch clinging to a bush. He smiled warily. “Careful. Go slow.”    
     If I slipped my job was to keep my body into the cliff, to tuck my feet into my butt and press my forehead into the rock. We were a hundred feet up without a rope. It was stupid.
     My foot held.
     The next move was a big downward step. I said, “One more tough one and the rest is easy.”
     You could see the fear on him, surely as you could see it on me. Regardless, we stayed calm. I looked down.
     It was exhilarating to look at. It was a perverse feeling. I was not seeking death, instead seeing if I was ready.
     I eased down. My foot held. I blindly reached over flaky rock and found a finger-hold. Quickly I made another move, and the tough part was over. I said, “Do you see where you have to go?”
     He lowered himself onto the vertical section, facing the peak. I slid over in the fall-path. If he slipped, either I arrested the slide or we went as one. I asked him, “Do you see it?”
     “Take your time.”
     His leg shook. It was part of him I had never seen before. He had a wonderful ability to push through pain. He never exuded weakness. I thought the shaking must be uncontrollable, for he kept his composure. I said, “If you slip lean into the rock.”
     The leg trembled as if it was separate from the rest of his body. Then he peered down and his face was stern, and the leg stopped. It was another taste, not long awaited, of his indestructibility.
     I braced myself against the incline. It felt unstable, that my feet might slip at any time. “Do you see it?”
     “I think so.”
     I was ready to catch him but then he made it look easy.
It was nice to be on the flat of the plateau. Gray cloud curled over us. I told him good job. He replied, “I was dizzy for a second. I took codeine this morning. I shouldn’t’ve been up there.”
     We ate lunch on a buttress of black stone. The wren ate out of our hands. We lobbed globs of bread into the abyss and watched the little gray birds dive after them, swooping underneath the bread and gobbling it out of the air.
A week later the snow lay thin and fresh on the slope. I watched light flutter down on dust-like snow. The sky was changing and blue was coming through.
     On the trail, the conifers were populous and rose straight up off the terrain. The trunks were thin and gray and limbless at eye-level. We had been at it an hour, he and I.  “Pretty isn’t it?” I said. 
     “Yeah.” He was stalking the trail. I knew he hurt. He had to hurt. The trail turned and steepened. I felt bad for talking. For spoiling it. I tried not to think about him, but I could not help it.  Why was he going so hard?
When I came up on him he was retching. His head was hung over his knees. The snow at his feet was red. I asked if he was alright though I knew how he would answer. 
     “Yeah.” He kicked dirt and snow over the blood and resumed. I thought he probably liked the pain in his lungs and legs, for it was distraction.
     It was not long before I had lost him again. When I found him he was resting on a jut. He was peering at the freeway in the valley. I stood next to him. You could hear the traffic. Watching the succession of cars made me feel lousy. I hated being a part of it. Turning away he said, “We drove two hours to get here.”
We struggled.
     It was good to be where it was quiet. The soul might fix itself out here. A man can howl and bark at clouds and cry and argue with himself.
     What was he thinking now as we came out of the woods and upon the mounds of granite black and slick and piled as if it was a quarry? Was he wondering if he had been dumped from above? Does it matter what I do? You know the one and she is gone and there is nothing you can do. Craving escape, to be present. It will be too late when you finally make it.
     I smelled scarf. I was warm inside a sweater and fir-lined corduroy coat and acrylic socks. I asked him how he felt. He was more comfortable than last time. He wore a small yellow backpack now and had tissue in the nose of his boots.
     We climbed over pillars of rock leaning like great growths of crystal. Clean snow lay like drapery in the creases. We wanted to look at the haystack.
     Getting close I asked why. I thought that it was you heap up a bunch of responsibilities and then have to prove to yourself you are still free. You need to know you have not slid into cowardice with all you have to lose.
     “I don’t want to die in a hospital,” I said to my friend.
     “I know,” he said.
     “I feel I could die right now and be okay with it,” and I stopped myself from saying I had lived a full life, for that belief will bring out the coward too.
     “I am not ready to die,” he said. “That’s what I figured out last time. I am not ready and don’t want to. Dying is selfish.”
     We crowned the mountain. The sky was all blue, and the sun was soothing. We paused just a moment and then found our way to the haystack.
     “It doesn’t look that scary from down here,” he said. “Should we try it?”
     I laughed. We returned to the same projection of rock and spent time with the birds.
     “Look at the city,” he said. It was like looking at Seattle in a glass ball. It looked quaint, unobtrusive, there in the flat environed by the biome.
     “Are you ready to be a dad again?” he asked me.
     “Now I am,” I said.
     “You needed what happened last time.”
     “I think so.”
     “Me too,” he said.

Halfway down we rested. We lay back on the snow above the trail. It felt wonderful to recline. I thought of what I had read in some Vedic text about Krishna admiring men who live well.
     We broke once more near the bottom of Mount Si. We trudged off trail and knelt beside a creek and lapped water over our faces. I swished some and it was cold and delicious.
     We sat away from each other on decaying logs, and we talked about never wanting to leave.